climate change transport

Why we need to talk about transport emissions

uk-emissions-2014-deccA couple of weeks ago I said that I’d like to look at transport a bit more, and invited your submissions and ideas. Today I want to briefly explain why I think we need to talk about transport.

First of all, here’s a breakdown of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions for 2014. Energy supply is still the biggest slice of our emissions, which is why it’s quite right to focus on electricity generation and the transition to renewable energy.

Transport is the next biggest contributor of greenhouse gases, accounting for almost a quarter. But it’s when we look at the trends that the problem can be seen most clearly. Here’s how the picture has changed for each of those sectors, in the last couple of years that we have good data for, and since 1990:


In the last 25 years, emissions from our energy supply have fallen by 41%. Housing and the business sector are getting more efficient. We’ve made big strides in waste management – it’s easy to forget that recycling was almost non-existent in Britain in 1990, and investment in recycling and the landfill tax have slowly brought that under control. ‘Other’ is also doing well, and if you’re wondering what that is, it’s the public sector and various industrial processes such as cement manufacturing.

In fact, every sector has moved in the right direction, and that’s good to see. Transport, however, has made the least progress. By a considerable margin, it’s the sector that’s not pulling its weight.

If we are to meet our carbon targets, every section of society needs to be working to reduce its environmental impact. We can prioritise some over others, and pursue the easiest routes to decarbonisation, so there’s no reason to demand equal reductions across all sectors. But since we’re looking at an 80% cut by 2050, no source of emissions gets a pass. Transport, with it’s poor 3% fall since 1990, is not moving fast enough.

So that’s the main reason why I want to look at the topic, and over the next few weeks I want to answer some of the key questions – what’s the core problem? What possible interventions are there? What can be done to accelerate change?

Thank you to everyone who has sent in material, links and ideas on this so far, and keep them coming. This series is going to be something of a team effort.


  1. I can only say that the roads are much more crowded than they used to be; there are cars all over the place. New cars sales are as high as they’ve ever been (see SMMT data). I certainly avoid cycling on main roads now – too dangerous. The number of HGVs seems to be higher too; what happened to the idea of getting more freight onto rail and using local distribution centres?
    My take on this is that consumerism hasn’t slackened off. There is currently a debt-fueled consumer boom, I believe. So more delivery trucks and more new cars.
    Another issue is the way people drive. Some people are careful and avoid wasting fuel. But some still drive furiously, driven by egos and testoserone, I guess. We need a culture shift. Personally, I’d put up with higher fuel taxes if it moderated driving style and miles driven. Provided electricity for electric vehicles (and hydrogen for fuel cells) isn’t taxed hard as well!

    1. New car sales are considered great for the economy, and building new roads for them is generally celebrated as well – as our new Chancellor will probably demonstrate this coming week. That makes it hard to challenge.

      Good thought on driving style, that’s worth a post at some point.

  2. Do you think manufacturers should be prevented from producing any more diesel cars? Green Car Reports state that Mazda is doing so next year, (and, I don’t suppose they are alone)..

    1. Possibly, though air pollution controls or taxing diesel might do the job better. Diesel does have useful applications, and we don’t want to rule those out in the process.

      I suspect that given the bad press in recent months, diesel car sales will fall and many companies will stop making them anyway. By getting their announcement out earlier than others, Mazda get the good press, which is smart – but as you say, I doubt they’ll be alone.

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